Imagine you have a friend who dreams of becoming a chef. (I know this is not your usual introduction to a fashion article, but stay with me). Ever since you’ve known them, this friend cannot stop talking about the meals they will make one day. They spend all their free time trying out new recipes and all their money buying cookbooks. They invest heavily in expert chef education where they learn from renowned Michelin-starred veterans about the development of flavours. Then your friend graduates, only to realise that restaurants don’t actually need chefs, they need line cooks and floor managers. “Not a problem,” says your friend, “I’ll just open my own restaurant,” which is when the problems really start. Because to open a restaurant, you need a space and a kitchen. You need to pay for electricity in that kitchen, and you need to buy ingredients. You need cutlery, decoration, menus, and waiting staff to actually serve the food. The friend is in complete shock. Why hadn’t anyone ever explained this to them?
The situation seems absurd ‒ how could anyone dream of becoming a chef without understanding how a restaurant works? ‒ but replace “chef” with “designer” and “restaurant” with “brand” and the anecdote becomes eerily familiar to anyone working in fashion. Whether you’re a journalist, stylist, photographer, or designer, most of us don’t actually spend that much time thinking about the practicalities of fashion until we’re knee-boots-deep into our careers.
“I always felt like I was the clueless one, but doing the show I realised that other creative professions in the industry don’t necessarily know what it means to produce a collection.” – Sinead O’Dwyer
“I realised that every single person in this industry is always learning,” shares Sinead O’Dwyer, who graduated from the Royal College of Fashion in 2018 and showed her first runway collection during London Fashion Week last season. “I always felt like I was the clueless one, but doing the show I realised that other creative professions in the industry don’t necessarily know what it means to produce a collection.”
Of course, fashion has always been an industry where knowledge exchange happens on shop floors and inside studios. Formal education tends to focus on creative expression and the hardest lessons come after graduation. “The business side of things is rarely adequately taught in universities,” explains Emma Davidson, fashion features director at Dazed, “Fashion institutions prefer to focus on the creative side of things. Few designers I know or have worked with come out of their degrees confident on how to start a business.”
“The effects of additional shipping costs make lend-outs to stylists in other countries impossible, and our carriage charges for the fabric orders increased immensely.” – Marie Lueder
But this “figure it out as you go along” approach has proven outdated, as economic turmoil is putting immense pressure on businesses everywhere ‒ and young designers are the first to take the hit. Between Brexit, Covid, the energy crisis, and inflation, covering the cost of living in a fashion capital while operating a small fashion business has become unfeasible. “Brexit already created so many obstacles for young designers,” explains Marie Lueder, a Royal College of Arts graduate who launched her label in 2020. “The effects of additional shipping costs make lend-outs to stylists in other countries impossible, and our carriage charges for the fabric orders increased immensely.” The challenges don’t stop there. “Our electricity bills in the studio doubled over the past two months, I’ll be hesitant to turn on the heater. Luckily, my friend just crocheted me a hat which I will wear the whole winter to be less cold.”
“Despite the many initiatives to support emerging designers, facing substantial socio-economic impacts in the early days of the business can be very challenging.” – Joao Maraschin
Stories like this reverberate across the industry. “I recently downsized and became a one-man business again because of the cost of living. I used to have two assistants, but all prices went up and sales remained the same which caused an immediate impact,” shares Joao Maraschin from his stand at the London Showrooms in Paris. “Despite the many initiatives to support emerging designers, facing substantial socio-economic impacts in the early days of the business can be very challenging.” The London-based designer works in close connection to Brasilian craftswomen, reigniting their forgotten skills. But with the pound dropping drastically, these overseas relations have become difficult to maintain, “forcing the brand to become less competitive in the overall market.”
“There’s still this weird romance attached to being a struggling creative and to be commercially successful is often seen as selling out.” – Emma Davidson
These socio-economic shifts impact other industries too, of course, but fashion seems particularly unequipped in recognising the severity of the changes. At the issue’s core lies the industry-wide distinction between fashion (the garment) and fashion (the zeitgeist expressed through style). There are enough clothes on planet earth to dress its inhabitants for life so, in order to keep business as usual, our industry prefers to focus on the cultural relevance of clothes, rather than the practical one. We sell fashion as an art form, a marker of identity, an expression of the self, and a mirror of society. Fashion as textile and garment production takes a backseat.
“Fashion has a certain entitlement, there can be a culture of ‘nobody ever told me it would be this hard.’” – Mahoro Seward
As a consequence, talking about money is considered a massive faux pas, especially if you want to position yourself within the creative avant-garde. “There is little to no talk about money in my work environment,” continues Emma. “There’s still this weird romance attached to being a struggling creative and to be commercially successful is often seen as selling out.”
But the inability to understand financial and political realities are the result of privilege, not victimhood. “Fashion has a certain entitlement, there can be a culture of ‘nobody ever told me it would be this hard,’” observes Mahoro Seward. As fashion features editor at i-D, they have interviewed their fair share of emerging designers and creatives. “I’m not saying that working in fashion isn’t hard, but there appears to be a certain blindness to its reality. People expect a fairytale.”
“There is a struggle with the ego to admitting your struggles, it’s very personal to talk about financial stress, and even mental stress.” – Mahoro Seward
Who wrote that fairy tale in the first place? Both Emma and Mahoro admit to eschewing financial details when writing about young designers. “Dazed is really about championing rising talent, so asking the question about their financial realities has previously seemed a bit redundant,” writes Emma. “We all know how hard it is to make it in fashion, and the point of the interviews is to support and get eyes on the people we believe in.” Mahoro recognises the importance of the “fans, not critics” strategy, as young designers need all the help they can get. On top of that, designers often refuse to dive into the nitty-gritty of their business, even when they are explicitly asked about it. “It has happened multiple times that we reached out to designers to speak about these issues, people who preach about transparency, to show young readers what it’s like to run a business at this scale, and they just ghosted us!” explains Mahoro. “There is a struggle with the ego to admitting your struggles, it’s very personal to talk about financial stress, and even mental stress.”
So here we all are, drowning in debt, barely keeping our businesses afloat, surviving on government support schemes and the free labour of interns ‒ too proud to admit to our struggles and too scared to share the little information we do have with our peers. Since COVID, we’ve been bombarded with stories on the hardships of small business owners, yet we can’t seem to relate that to our own industry.
Perhaps there is simply too much comfort in complaining. As art graduates, we’ve been trained to imagine alternate realities, so we keep dreaming of utopia, explaining how perfect the world would be if only our schools had trained us differently, if fashion media was more transparent, if the government had more design-specific incubator programs. But fashion is not art. We are not marginalised loners commenting on society from its fringes. We actively take part in it and impact it with our product. So let’s make sure our language and thinking reflect that. You’re not “collaborating”, you’re asking friends to work for free because you didn’t plan a budget. You’re not just a “creative”, you’re a “business owner” ‒ so act like it, or you’ll end up like your friend, who is not a chef, but an entrepreneur with a failed business.